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Spiral of Silence, Research Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1851

Research Paper

Abstract

More than four decades since Noelle-Neumann conceived the concept of spiral of silence, its influence in the expression of minority opinions is still contested. Several research studies including Stanley Milgram’s have shown that the fear of isolation is a significant factor in the expression of opinions that may not be shared by the majority. Online context have offered new dynamics that have undermined the core principle of the spiral of silence, but research studies have shown that the concept is also applicable in online contexts.

Introduction

The model proposed by Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974 explains why individuals are not willing to express their views when they are in opposition to that of the majority. This model is grounded on three premises. First, individuals have a “quasi-statistical organ” or a “sixth sense” that enables them to determine the prevailing public opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). The second premise is that individuals are afraid of isolation and are aware of the behaviors that will increase their social isolation. Thelast premise isthat individuals are afraid to express their minority opinions because of the fear of social isolation.

According to Noelle-Neumann, a person is willing to express his/her opinion is the opinion is close to the prevailing public opinion. However, if public opinion changes and the person realize that their personal sentiment is not favorable, they will be less willing to public express the opinion. When the perceived between personal opinion and public opinion grows the likelihood of the individual expressing them increases. Spiral of silence has become a major research topic in the age of the internet and social media where individuals can freely express their views on any topic.

Review of literature

Noelle-Neumann coined the term spiral of silence to describe the increasing pressure that people experience when concealing their opinions if they are not in line with public views. Het theory explains and documents the growth of public opinion. According to Locke, there are three types of laws: civil, divine and opinion, but opinion is the only law that people abide by. Noelle-Neumann recognizes the power of opinion, and claims that it the only force that keep individuals in line.

Noelle-Neumann argues that humans have a sixth sense or a “quasi-statistical organ” that enables them to discern public opinion. Although science has focused on the five senses that allow humans to understand their environment, Neumann claims that the sixth sense allows humans to understand the general feeling and thinking of the society. Neumann uses her more than 30 years experience doing surveys to support her claims (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). Furthermore, she asserts that evaluating the public mood is the most natural undertaking that people do. The ability of humans to recognize changes in public opinion is not used playfully because it demands energy to determine ideas that are on the rise and those that are waning. This implies that significant concentration is required to assess social trends, which is beneficial compared to the dangers of isolating oneself.

It is this fear of isolation, according to Noelle-Neumann, that powers the spiral of silence. She bases this model on the extensively on conformity research carried out by Solomon Asch, a Swarthmore psychologist (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). Asch posited that individuals would ignore the clear evidence of their senses and conform to perceived group pressure.

Noelle-Neumann responds to claims that the fear of isolation is an attribute odd to Americans. She dismisses this assertion by using results from Stanley Milgram’s follow-up experiments conducted in France and Europe. Milgram chose France and Norway because of the diversity of their cultures, with France being highly individualistic and Norway having some sense of cohesiveness (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). As expected, Norwegian participants conformed more compared to the French. However, participants from the two countries were not able to stand their ground in the face of majority pressure compared to Americans.

In her work, Noelle-Neumann considers the likelihood that individuals conform out of the desire to identify with winners than the fear of isolation.She uses the example of people claiming to have voted for the winning candidate in an election that indicated by the total ballots. He considers this finding as a strategy aimed at avoiding social stigma that is associated with being deviant on important issues. This is supported by findings from her surveys showing that the fear of rejection is high among respondents (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). Long-term solidarity incarceration, expulsion from the group, and sanctioned public scorn are some of the consequences of deviating from the prevailing public opinion in most parts of the world. She claims that only the moral hero and the criminal are not interested about the views of the society, but for the majority, the contentment, and peace of belonging is desirable. Her views are supported by statements by the late Mother Teresa, a Nobel Prize winner when she said that the greatest sickness is not disease, but the feeling of being deserted and unloved by everyone (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). This explains why people are constantly assessing the climate of public opinion.

Although the spiral of silence has been used to explain changes in public opinion, one of its major assumptions is that people fear expressing their views if they are contrary to the prevailing public opinion. This assumption hasbeen given little empirical consideration (Shoemaker et al, 2000). Despite conducting experiments and surveys where is manipulated the fear of isolation, other researchers still consider this variable as an assumption. It is evident from literature that it is unclear whether the fear of isolation is precursor to opinion formation and overriding opinion evaluation or an overriding variable between the formation of opinion and the willingness to express this opinion.

In case an individual’s opinion is seen to be in the majority, the individual may speak out publicly without the danger of isolation of losing popularity. If the reverse is true, the individual may choose to remain silent and avoid embarrassing or confrontational situations such as public criticism (Shoemaker et al, 2000).

The problem with such as assumption is that the fear of isolation has not been tested as a variable. Doing these demands the exposition of the construct of fear of isolation into parameters that can be measured. Additional, when the fear of isolation is being studied, it is important to differentiate its influence on opinions held and its impacts on the willingness to express personal views (Shoemaker et al, 2000).

Empirical experiments that use fear of isolation as oneof the variable is capable of giving insight into when and how the fear of isolation affect e ability of individuals to express unpopular opinions. As assumed by Noelle-Neumann that the fear of isolation sets into motion the spiral of silence and Asch experiments showing that the fear of isolation can be a substantial influence, this fear can be a precursor variable in understanding the fear of isolation (Shoemaker et al, 2000).Others have posited that the fear of isolation is an intervening variable between the formation of opinions andthe willingness to express them. Researchers have cited social anxiety as an intervening variable in the formation and expression of opinions. A link between self-consciousness and the fear of being perceived negatively by others has been hypothesized as a significant variable. Negative views about one and associated with internal attributions of failure and to unfavorable self assessments. Individuals who are socially anxious and are afraid of social isolation have negative self-images that can affect their ability to express minority opinions.

The relevance of spiral of silence in the context of social media has not been studies extensively. However, literature that has explored the application of this concept has identified several factors that undermine some principles of the fear of isolation such as anonymity (Minucci & Mascheroni, 2010). Criticisms of Noelle-Neumann’s concept have come mainly from studies have investigated the concept from an online perspective. Her original idea was conceived ina mass media context, in which mass media was see as having a strong influence on public opinions. The characteristics of messages communicated by mass media such as ubiquity, accumulation and consonance supported Noelle-Neumann’s hypothesis of spiral of silences.

However, online platforms have undermined all these characteristics of mass media especially consonance. Applying the theory of spiral of silence into the online contexts demands changes to the core principles because the climate of opinions unique and cannot be compared to traditional media.The conditions afforded by online platforms such as anonymity allows people to voice their opinions even if they are contrary to the prevailing public opinion (Minucci & Mascheroni, 2010).

Although literature on the spiral of silence in online environments is sparse, it is clear that even extreme views may seem moderate in an online environment compared to traditional media. The consensus among researchers is that the key principles of the spiral of silence are challenged by the dynamics of online platforms (Minucci & Mascheroni, 2010).

Opportunities offered by social media to individuals with minority opinions have also been explored in relation to the spiral of silence. One survey conducted by pew research to determine the willingness of respondents to discuss Edward Snowden’s claim of widespread government surveillance showed how the spiral of silence influence expression of public opinion in social media platforms such as twitter and Facebook (Hampton et al, 2014). The survey sought the opinions of the participants concerning the leaks and their willingness to talk about it in social media. Results from the survey showed that respondents were less willing to talk about the leaks in social media than they were individually. The survey also found that social media did not offer alternatives to people not willing to discuss the Snowden claims. Lastly, it was found that in both online and personal settings, individuals were more willing to discuss the leaks if they believed that they agreed with their audience (Hampton et al, 2014). This led to the conclusion that Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence is also applicable I online settings contrary to other research studies that have explored the concept within the online context.

Conclusion

It is evident that the spiral of silence still influences people’s ability to express their opinions if even it was developed more than four decades ago. More specifically, the perception of the surrounding climate of opinion is a significant factor in the expression of minority opinions because people value belongingness, which can be endangered in such circumstances. Despite the anonymity afforded by online platforms such as social media, the principles of Noelle-Neumann’s idea are still applicable because research studies have shown that people are willing to discuss some topics if their audiences concur with them. Despite this evidence, it is important to conduct more research in the subject in order to make definitive conclusions about the concept of spiral of silence.

References

Hampton, K., Rainie, L., Lu, W., Dwyer, M., Shin, I., &  Purcell, K. (2014). Social Media and the “Spiral of Silence.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/

Minucci, S. and Mascheroni, G. (2010). European elections in the Italian web sphere: campaigning 2.0’ in CEU Political Science Journal, pp. 187-201.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: a theory of public opinion’. in Journal of Communication, 24(2): 43-51.

Shoemaker, P., Breen, M., & Stamper, M. (2000).Fear of Social Isolation: Testing an Assumption from the Spiral of Silence. Irish Communications Review, Vol 8.

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